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Over and Out,

Greg

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Guinea Pig Tastes Like Chicken

Cusco, Peru—As my friend and I were playing with a vender’s pet parrot, a local friend asked, “Hey, you happen to like guinea pigs?”

“Nah. I was never a pet person.”

“Me, neither. But do you like guinea pigs?”

“Well, they’re really not that interesting. Besides, they’re too soft. I prefer some solid musculature on my animals. Like dem’ German Shepherds.”

“No! Muscular like a German Shepherd is bad. In fact the mere thought if it makes me sick to my stomach. Bodies are better when they are light on the sinew.”

“Well, okay, I guess to each their own. But big dogs are cool since they’re always rowdy and ready to make noise. Guinea pigs just chill on that hay stuff and don’t do anything.”

“But they make good noise when you…” He squeezed his fists together and turned them in opposite directions, as if he were wringing a wet towel.

“Yeah, but pets always squirm and yelp when you give them a bath. Trust me, I’ve had a dog.  But look, I hope your guinea pigs enjoy it when you clean them.”

“Ahh, hope is a dangerous thing, my friend.”

*

Ten friends and I were trekking through the mountains surrounding Machu Picchu when we parted some branches and found ourselves in the middle of a primitive ranch. The tour guide, Elvis, turned to us and asked, “And who is ready to try Peru’s most famous delicacy?”

Every hand went up.

Elvis reached down into a pile of grass and grabbed a loose guinea pig. Then he grabbed it by the head and torso and wrung its neck like a facecloth.

“Could I get another head count?” he asked. No hands went up. Except mine.

“Gregory, what a brave man! I shall skin it and clean it in the nearby stream, and then I shall remove as many of the intestinal organs as I can and fry it for you.”

Me: (hesitatingly) “Yes.”

“In fact, I shall let you see the entire process yourself! Come with me to the stream.”

“Um, err…I found a comfortable boulder here…maybe I could just sit and wait till—“

“Go  on, Greg! You’re brave, remember?” All my friends behind me shouted.

“Haha, yeah well…”

Elvis slapped me on the back. “Amigo, this will be the finest meal you have ever tasted.”

“I sure hope so,” I said.

But hope is very, very dangerous thing.

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Cusco

In my first twenty four hours in Peru, I huddled through a nippy night hobo-style in the gritty Lima airport, blitzkrieged my gracious Peruvian host family with questions on how to resurrect my Venezuelan phone that checked out several years ago, gobbled down a delightful plate of eggs, vegetables, but mostly salt, jaunted through Cusco’s Incan streets to find the digital Yahweh who could restore kaput cell chips, and finally reached, after dodging testosterone-pumped drivers who turn intersections into WWE demolition derbies, the pearly gates of the electronics depot where I was to complete my first major transaction in Español; which was when I realized that I had left my phone at the house.

My first reaction was to blame it all on the ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-altitude. My second reaction: Wow, my Spanish sucks!

My time in China was hemlock for my Spanish. During my year in the Middle Kingdom, most of the Spanish I had pumped into my frontal cortex during high school happily whistled out of my brain like air out of a punctured tire.  In Latin America, nothing I did could breach the language barrier. Not hand gestures interspersed with “amigos,” not Chinese repackaged with my sincere attempt at rolled r’s. Thus I abandoned those strategies for the tried-and-true method of speaking louder and slower when they didn’t understand the first time.

The mountains surrounding Cusco

Luckily foreigners abound here, which softens the sting of my otherwise deaf-mute status. But I found that to really milk Cusco’s Andean udder for all she’s worth, I had to venture to the places where foreign tourists don’t go. So I dropped in on the farmer’s market of San Pedro, where they milk Andean udders for real, and where the horny heads of bulls are piled in decidedly unhorny mountains of slaughterhouse leftovers.

I also went with my Spanish teacher, Ricardo, on a pleasant excursion to Cusco’s back alley, thug-poppin’, gangsta-swagging, Harlem-wannabe plaza, where there are almost enough backward caps and dangling chains to make you believe you’re in a real gangster’s paradise. While we were admiring the view, one of the aspiring fashionistas getto-swaggered toward us, one hand clutching what lay just south of his rather large equator, one hand concealing a small baggy.

“Psst. I got everything for the head.” He said, which as you might guess, is wangsta idioglossia for drugs.

“Like what?” Sometimes Ricardo is a bit loco. His potential business partner rattled off his inventory.

“Interesting.”

“You from around here?” Ricardo nodded. Then the man continued, “I have family in San Pista, a very dangerous neighborhood of Lima.”

“Me too.”

“My family lives on in the most dangerous corner of that neighborhood.”

“Mine too. Which street does your family live on?”

“They just live in the roughest part of the neighborhood.”

“My family has been to prison.”

“Do you want drugs or not.”

“Maybe another day.”

As we shuffled off, Ricardo explained to me that it was respectable, when dealing with these hoodlums, to deflate their blowhard egos with some embellished autobiography. But in my case, with my already bona-fide street cred established as a philosophy student from New York, it’s hard to see what embellishment would add.

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China and Liberal State

One day my teacher wrote a string of characters on the board. “Qiang da chu tou niao.” Or, roughly, the birds that rise above the cover of the tree line are the ones that are shot down. It is an old saying in China, warning aspiring Donald Trumps that those who make it to the top are those who society grows jealous of and nudges into the collective crosshairs.

The idiom reflects the Confucian ideal of modesty and knowing one’s rightful place, of the need to have  subjects to lead and authorities to obey. Those inspired individualists who flex out of the societal strata not only paint a target on their backs but send seismic shocks throughout the larger order that knits communities together. Better to enter the stream of history calmly, obediently. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tze said, just go with the flow.

My teacher also wrote on the board, “Ren pa chuming, zhu pa zhuang”: People fear becoming famous, pigs fear becoming big. Again, the biggest and best are sent first to slaughter. And as if to make you wish that the first Chinese sage had copyrighted his two cents, the Chinese also have: “Shu da gua feng.” Or, the winds shake the tallest trees.

The community painted by these three idioms is unapologetically utopian. It is a world in which people rise, paradoxically, above the very personal ambition that impels them skyward, in order to weave at ground level a social fabric of humility. Thus the connections between persons would be very close, since the individual ambitions that drive people apart have been tempered. It’s a world which rolls on peacefully, bereft of the political melees/brouhahas churned by self-styled messiahs who hallucinate paradigmatic truths from a make-believe pedestal. It’s a world in which even the most tempestuous tempers among us learn to simmer and swim downstream.

This tightly knit utopia generated by Chinese values is no advertisement for American individualism, where the nonconformist inclination is to break ranks rather than join them—either by starting a trend such as the backward-baseball cap, or by going to war unilaterally amid the wagging fingers of the international community. Of course, both sides have something to learn from the other. I suspect, for instance, that the sterility of Chinese education in sparking the creative impulse—a problem the Chinese are trying to address—is tethered to the cultural tendency to overly reward the kid who colors within the stenciled lines.

What about the kid who wants to scrawl outside the template, who wants to mold his community rather than be molded by it? What about those of us who don’t want to enter quietly into the philosophical currents of our eras, but would rather cannonball into them? Such a person is often of the self-righteous and blowhard persuasion, whose determined capacity for societal improvement emanates from a social and moral myopia that also makes him a potential force for degradation. It is easy to see why a community would condemn this kind of person. But the individualist who flouts societal mores, whether for fame or the collective good, also punctures society’s hand-me-down premises about what is right and what is taboo.  Like a salmon headed upstream for spawning, he struggles against the prevailing tides, surmounts the dams of traditional assumptions and, just perhaps, gives birth to something new. Splashing into the philosophical current causes his neighbors get soaked in the process, but his apparent infallibility churns the eddies of our public consciousness. He makes waves.

Compare the turbulent story of the individualist with the community whose largest members trim their wings and slog in mediocrity. Individuals find themselves pulled in toward their community’s magnetic core, and are discouraged from acting on the individualists impulses that impel outward or skyward, and which would thus accentuate the barriers between persons by drawing them further from the societal nucleaus. The community turns inward on itself, much like China until the West pried it open. Wherever we go, the community declares, we go together.

Scholars have noted two wellsprings of value in the Confucian ethic. One, as you have guessed by now, is the community. The other is the virtue of balance, the grace with which the individual assimilates her own ideals to the social mores of her community. In a contractarian twist, the individual is called to sacrifice the ambitions and aspirations that make her stand out, such that she may fit in. As philosopher Michael Boylan points out, “Each person’s individual liberty consists of finding a way to fit his or her own life desires within the confines of the community. Thus, the Chinese government says against objections of the west; let us alone. We are working within the confines of our own community-based standards.”

The final product of the assimilation is a communal entity over and above the sum of each of its members, a social hydra from which the value and life of the separate constituents are offshoots. This social hydra is the antithesis of liberal democracy, in which the autonomy of the individual is the grounding of value. In liberal democracy, the citizen exercises autonomy through voting (auto means self, nomous is law, and hence to be autonomous is to give yourself your own law).  In the social hydra, the individual is no longer the actor, and he is no longer autonomous. In shedding the philosophical birthmarks that set him apart, he has bargained away his to capacity for self-rule. He has paced his destiny in the hands of the state, which draws from the abdicated autonomy of each member and assumes the role of autonomous agent, the new actor who lays down the law. Confucian communitarianism is the new Barry Bonds—liberal democracy on steroids.

And now (drumroll…) we face a choice. The Confucians among us would rather cuddle up with their communitarian ethic in which our identities as moral agents are inextricably linked to society, while the champions of personal autonomy would throw down with the liberal state. Which should we choose?

Probing the implications of Confucian communitarianism reveals it to be about as inviting as the deer penis wine people drink here.  Think about it (about the implications of communitarianism, not about the deer’s penis). After the individuals forfeit their right to lay down laws, the social hydra operates with no external check.  Because the community is the fount of value, and individuals are worthy only insofar as they mold themselves to fit it, the social hydra cannot admit within its circle of concern anyone who does not already share its values. As Boylan says, “Individual interpretations of the community standards are only welcomed if they are supportive.” The communal ideals become self-justifying, held off the table of rational criticism by the citizens’ own eager hands.

Without some external foothold with which to gain philosophical leverage, re-routing the societal stream becomes impossible. Archimedes said that if given a place to stand, he could move the world. He meant that with a lever long enough, and a properly placed fulcrum, no weight is too heavy to budge. But in a self-justifying society that does not admit of standpoints irreconcilable with its own, it is impossible to derive the epistemic leverage with which to dislodge our first principles. Once you leave the sphere of community, you lose any foothold with which to budge its premises. In such a society, the Archimedean point just doesn’t exist; there is no mechanism for re-orientation. We could only cast sail to the prevailing winds and pray we don’t get swept over a waterfall.

But that would be to give such a society too much credit. There is a sense in which the social hydra cannot go anywhere at all. Because there is no external principle which the hydra accepts, there is no external goal to which it can possibly orient itself, and thus no meaningful measure of societal progress. The hydra, in assuming leadership of its citizens and liberated from principles that come from outside, becomes a self-contained moral apparatus condemned to be its own guide. It is unchained to exterior forces and thus completely free. How wonderful, you might think.

To see out it isn’t, suppose you are a member of the jury deciding the case of John, who is accused of murdering Jill two nights ago. The prosecutors bring up the usual evidence, including fingerprint evidence, DNA swabs, and eyewitness testimony. But suppose that you are part of a rare minority that believes that the past is unreal, a mere imaginary tale you hallucinated five minutes ago with the appearance of age. If you believe this, there is no evidence the prosecutors can possibly bring up to convince you that John did anything, much less commit murder, more than five minutes ago.

The above case reveals how all action and analysis occurs within the context of guiding assumptions—there is a past or there isn’t—and it is within the context of these assumptions and only within their context that we can act at all. To accept the evidence as illustrative of John’s guilt is to assume that there is indeed a past, while to dismiss the evidence on the grounds that nothing happened two days ago is to make a contrary assumption. Because evidence has meaning only within these assumptions, it can’t be used to prove or disprove the assumption on pain of circularity. The assumptions then, while they cannot be justified, channel our possible actions into avenues consistent with them, guiding our actions in a way that confers meaning on what we do.

An entity that is unchained to principles is an entity without direction, for whom action has no meaning. The burden shouldered by a self-justifying society is that it is in the moral clear whatever (almost) it does, and so has no reason to move in this direction rather than that. It feels no pushes or pulls, achieving unrestrained mobility at the cost of necessary stasis. The self-contained hydra has no compass with which to guide itself and no traction on the external world with which to take its first step. Without prior assumptions to constrict behavior, it can go anywhere; it can go nowhere. It is free; it is caged. One might say that absolute freedom fetters absolutely.

A society which demands that individuals conform to its values, that drags drifters back into its core with the promise of anchoring agents in an order greater than themselves, has nihilistic effects upon its body politic. For since the community can go nowhere, can achieve nothing, and since a community is in an important sense defined by what it does and how it operates, the community must be, in an important sense, nothing as well. The citizens sign their name on the dotted line, eager to take part in something greater, but then realize that the core they are being pulled toward is not a core but a hole—a big, bad, black hole that sucks away the autonomy they have given up and leaves nothingness in its place. And thus commences the disintegration of the individual. Self-sacrifice becomes impossible after all, since there is no longer any self to sacrifice.

So we might reject the ethic of the social hydra. But don’t go off founding new liberal states just yet. Some of you will have realized that the above arguments apply to the ideal of liberal autonomy as well.

Liberalism holds the autonomy of the individual supreme, in the same way that communitarianism emphasizes the supremacy of the community. According to liberalism, what we choose is not as important as our right to choose, and it is this right that is to be preserved at all costs. That’s why we have a separation of Church and State. We are free to choose our own way. There is no substantive check on what we may choose, so long as we don’t go off tormenting the communitarians. We thereby arrive at a non-judgmental form of government whose role is merely procedural, protecting our right to choose without evaluating the substance of our choices. It is the triumph of form over content.

And because the right to choose outstrips what we choose, there is no substantive condition our choices must meet in order to be worth acting on. Our ends are worth respecting not because they align with an external rubric of right and wrong, but because they satisfy the formal condition of having been chosen freely.

Need I write this paragraph? Because there is no external check to constrict what we choose, we can choose anything and nothing. Because the autonomous will is constrained by nothing above itself, the value of its choices derives from within and it thus becomes a self-contained moral apparatus, condemned to be its own guide and yet without a compass with which to do so. There is no mechanism for re-orientation. Nor can the autonomous will get traction on external moral terrain in order to take any first steps, and it thus attains unrestricted potential at the cost of necessary stasis. Because the will can choose nothing, and because the will is, in an important sense, a function of what it chooses, the will itself must be, in an important sense, nothing as well. Just a big, black hole that sucks away its own autonomy. The will is free; it is caged. Absolute freedom fetters absolutely.

This argument assumes that the autonomous will can indeed choose whatever it wants and retain its autonomy. If this is so, then the alternatives of Confucian communitarianism and liberal autonomy are not in fact two choices. The first is simply the second masquerading at the level of society rather than the level of the agent. In the first, what the community may do is unimpeded by anything above it. In the second, what the community may do is impeded by how the individual will checks it, but what the individual will may choose is unimpeded by anything above it. Both views lead to disintegration of the individual, and both deny the fundamental unit of moral worth—the community or the individual will—any mechanism by which to re-orient its course. The two political theories are simply two descriptions of what boils down to a single choice. Which means, of course, that we have no choice after all. We can have both; we can have neither. Unable to make a move in one direction or the other, we are condemned to necessary stasis.

Perhaps we’re doomed to choose between Scylla and Charybdis, with no way to steer ourselves out of this imbroglio. Then agan, I never would have found myself at this juncture had by teacher not sparked my philosophical impulse. Which means that I never would have seen China in this way unless I had come here, and that I would never have seen my home country in this way unless I had left it. How’s that for re-orientation?

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Yangshuo

Your first peek of the chimerically primped town of Yangshuo comes from the deck of your antedulivian cruise boat on the Li River. The ride is gentle but loud, giving you the energy boost which, if you are to take advantage over the next few days of all that Yangshuo has to offer, you will desperately need.

The snaky-swirly, four-hour cruise to Yangshuo cleaves China’s Eden. Float through these limestone peaks on the right day, and your only further wish in life will be that your tour guides, who have crashed your empyrean splendor and refuse to shut their magpie mouths until they’ve wheedled a few more kitschy souvenirs out of you, be struck down by thunderbolts.

That’s the price of exploring heart-stopping scenery with somewhat well-intentioned guides—guides who don’t realize that using a loudspeaker does not require sounding like Mt. Everest belching up her last course. If your ears haven’t swollen shut, you may hear the captain direct what remains of your attention to a mountainside whose outcroppings, supposedly, form nine horses. In fact, all I could make out were an avalanche of modern art worthy, freeze-dried boogers crusty from eons spent within sound rage of these mic-slingers. Majestic, though, in its own raw kind of way.

Yangshuo is one of those mythical towns which has, with the help of foreign tourism, ka-chinged its way onto the map. Cobbled stone streets bisect the faux 16th century architecture in patterns that are quaintly unpredictable. A stroll down the fried-snail scented Main Street, and you, too, will be all goo-goo over this cradle of lost, found, and newly renovated civilization.

Yangshuo has a laminated feel to it, as if it were plagiarized from paradise. You’re sauntering through a snow globe of time-warped culture, and there’s a kind of pressure as you wait for the pretty glass to burst and for time to fly back to the present. But in the moment, amid the bells and river side lounges, your world is whirling.

The town is also home to your everyday water cave: you can canoe through subterranean worlds, climb underground peaks, slide down slopes into mud bathing pits, shower under waterfalls, and relax in terraced hot springs that overlook a cliff. And that’s just inside one mountain, which comes complete with neon lighting.

Hades can’t be doing so bad as god of the underworld; the cave is thrilling.

But even the dark corners of the Earth provide no refuge from that most persistent of enemies. There I stood, entranced in a spelunker’s fantasy, as the tour guide began to lecture us on the similarities that certain stalactite formations bore to animals.

“That is a lion. The mane is a dead giveaway,” our guide said. I guess it could pass as a lion. If you were a modern artist.

The Chinese tourists were enthralled. Wow, they said. Or, That’s not a lion, that’s a dragon!

The rainbow theme peddled in the sprawling water cavern, and the bestial narratives supposedly unfolding in its strata, reveal a tourist campaign that fills what is best left empty. Disco balls to juice up the cave experience? Check.  Rambunctious rap blasting through Yangshuo’s vast mountain air late into the night? Fo shizzle. All that’s missing are professional photographers paparazzi-ing your gooey behind as you careen down the cave’s manmade mudslide. Yes, they have that, too. The only emptiness the tour managers have missed in creating this wonderland is the one between their ears.

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Why I deferred College Enrollment

This post was written for my Dad’s blog, and can be accessed here: http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/03/on-the-ground-with-a-gap-year/#more-8903. Enjoy.

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Yellow Rivers

There is a God of Bodily Waste, and He hates me. I discovered this during a devilishly fun time backpacking across the Tibetan Plateau, and so I ran up a list of bathroom do’s and don’ts that I wish I had had beforehand. Hopefully, this post will help aspiring bushwhackers navigate the delicate line between the paradisiacal awesomeness of Himalayan adventure, and traumatic experiences with the colors yellow and brown. Ignore these warnings, as I did, and one day you may find yourself accidently washing you’re your face with—

But I get ahead of myself.

We’ll start with the mundane: one time after moving mountains to find an el baño, I triumphantly peed into a urinal that had the peculiar ability of leaking its contents back onto my feet. After this startling discovery that China has yet another Yellow River, I was about to flip out and expose the nearby Tibetans to some advanced vocabulary they probably hadn’t yet studied in English class. But then I was lucky that this town even had a bathroom to begin with. We had spent the recent weeks traversing Tibet on motorcycles and creaky vans, and we had stayed in more than a few rock-swept villages that still did number-one the all natural way.

Lesson number one: when you become a casualty of sewage pipes that are more fit to be sprinklers, laugh. You were not peed on. You were baptized. In your urine.

The view above Xiewu. Note the dark droppings to the left.

A quick disclosure: I started this gap year as a New York suburbanite who was used to taking showers, eating edible food, and sleeping in beds. Tibet took the spotless comfort of Westchester and drop-kicked it out of the galaxy. During our three weeks exploring this Wild West of China, we spent nights in tents without heating or electricity, wolfed down crusty food that was probably fresh when Genghis Khan was off doing his thing, and generally got dirtier than Tupac’s lyrics.

“I haven’t felt this free since third grade recess.” Rick told me.

Oh, and an added bonus was that we became experts in using squat toilets. Remember not to sink too low when you squat. Trust me.

Know beforehand where the village’s public bathroom is. You have no idea when the boiled yak heart you just ate will commence operations. If there is no bathroom, get creative—but note that the spray-and-pray approach is directly frowned upon.

Even if there is a public toilet, exercise caution. I once entered the village’s public bathroom and spent several minutes wading through darkness and two-inch thick mud looking for the stalls. It took me a while to discover that in fact there were no stalls. After which I soon realized that the mud I was sloshing around in wasn’t actually mud.

At that moment the English vocabulary of the monks next door surged irreversibly.

Lesson two: mud is not clumpy.

But as I hope you will learn from the following experience, use your head when employing these life lessons.

During a road trip across the hinterlands, I asked our driver and friend to pull over so I could relieve myself. I got out on a corrugated road that snaked along a cliff. Perfect. I strode toward the edge where frosty Himalayan teeth yawned beneath me. Then I undid my belt and prepared to make yellow snow.

Actually, I felt like I was doing the thirsty alpine plants below a favor. Nothing like feeling the cool air on your face as you help Mother Nature with her chores.

Pit-pat-pit-pat-pit-pat.

I scanned the faraway peaks. Hey, a hawk! Nothing like seeing hawks and hearing the cheerful pit-pat as you—

Wait a minute.

The plants I was watering were 70 feet below. From up here, I should not be able to hear them buckle under the downpour. And it didn’t even sound like water on leaves. It sounded like water on…

Uh oh.

Pit-pat-pit-pat

I looked down, slowly, and my nightmare was confirmed. Don’t get me wrong, I was like Ole’ Faithful, but the wind was blowing the lemonade flurry right back to from whence it came. All over my jeans. Like, all over.

Pit-pat-pit-pat-pit-pat

Quick, Greg—do something! Brain throbs as I slam in to auto-pilot. Strafe right? No help there. Quick, move move move! Toggle left? Nope, wind’s too strong. Turn around and face the car? Hell, nawww! Wait, light bulb moment! Maybe angle 45 degrees right and allow the wind to sweep it in an arc—

Pit-pat-pit-pat-pit-pat-swoooosshhhhhh-SPLAAAT!!

Aaahhhhhh! The gales charge upward and intercept the droplets and carry them up, up, up into my face—PHSBSAAM!—the mountains just nailed a curve ball and I was at the dunk booth. KasplAAT!—Mother Nature slings hard, baby. SiiZZZZ! Quick, close your eyes so it doesn’t sting! Gushing repentance as I flail in an upside down Niagara, facing the mountain’s knowing smile, wrapped in a sea of vinegary tartness—but by now I was an expert in these matters so I knew what to do.

I opened my mouth to laugh.

Lesson three: some rules are definitely, definitely meant to be broken.

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